Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sunday Oden 2: Name of God

Each Sunday, I am trying to summarize a chapter of Tom Oden's Classic Christianity. For some thoughts on the Preface, see here.

First there is the Introduction to Book One: "The Living God" (3-11). Oden expresses ambivalence at the personal pronouns "he" and "she," since God is not literally a particular gender. Indeed, part of the scandal of particularity is the specificity with which Christ had to come to earth. So he was a Jew and not a Greek. He was a man and not a woman. "It" doesn't adequately convey God's personhood.

The intro distinguishes "natural" and "revealed" theology, a distinction most will know.

Chapter 1 is called "The Name of God" (15-37). "Christian revelation refers to the disclosure of God in the person and work of Christ" (18). This is a crucial point. To speak in general of a divine Being is not to speak of God in a Christian way. Christ is the focal point of talking about God for Christians historically. "The Christian study of God is faith seeking understanding" (21).

Here is Oden's understanding of the "consensual" definition of God: "God is the uncreated source and end of all things; one; incomparibly alive; insurmountable in presence, knowledge, and power; personal, eternal spirit, who in holy love freely creates, sustains, and governs all things" (23).

Oden mentions five ways of knowing God's character:

1. revelation
2. inferred through causality
3. what God is not (via negativa)
4. God as greater than (say of heightening characteristics--via eminentiae)
5. a priori sense of God, inferred from the very idea of God

He then sets us up for the next two chapters, which deal with attributes of God. Attributes first, then he will look at arguments for God's existence.

One thought that struck me is a potential critique in the making with regard to Oden's "consensual approach." It comes from the fact that almost all his sources are pre-modern, pre-Cartesian. The pre-modern way of looking at the world is essentially reflexive. It reads an order to the world out there that is possibly subject to Feuerbach's claim that God is simply a projection of the best collective traits of humanity. When we say God is the greatest possible Being, for example, are we setting up a portrait of God that is unthinkingly based on our perspective of the world?

I would thus modify Oden's list in this way:

1. God has revealed a nature in relation to this universe. We have no point of reference to say much of what God is outside this universe.

The consensual tradition is pre-Cartesian and so was unable to think in these terms. The order it read "out there" was largely a reflection of an order within its own understanding, not an order that would really correspond to a universe created out of nothing. Its picture of God was thus in many respects simply an extension of this universe rather than the other way around, as it must be.

In this respect, I suspect the consensual tradition must be translated in a post-Cartesian world. Oden's fundamental enterprise--not to say anything new--thus potentially consigns his theology to the pre-modern domain. To continue to view the world in this way is to hobble theology from the very start. The fathers and mothers are crucial, but we have an immensely better understanding of the world than they did and this does matter.

2. inferred through causality
This remains a key way to think about God, and we can do it much better than the consensual tradition could because of our immensely improved understanding of creation. Certainly we may be way off still.

3-4. via negativa and via eminentia
Again, these seem to work well in relation to this universe. I am unsure what if anything they might tell us about God outside this universe, but I look forward to reading on.

5. Being itself
I am less confident that we can know much of God through this path. I suspect in our modern paradigm, this collapses into #2.

These are musings, not claims. I have mused over them for years. Charles Taylor has helped me conceptualize them a further step.

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